February 11, 2010
Keep washing hands to prevent norovirus; peak norovirus season underway in Minnesota
Health officials stress importance of careful hand washing, food preparation in battling norovirus
Winter in Minnesota is the peak time of year for norovirus, an illness that should be as easy to prevent as one, two three, say health officials: Wash your hands properly, prepare and handle food properly, and if you are ill, stay home and don't prepare food for others.
Noroviruses are the most common cause of food-related illness in Minnesota, and reported outbreaks tend to peak during the winter months. That peak time is currently underway in Minnesota. Outbreaks of norovirus illness have been reported to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) in a variety of settings, including commercial food establishments, schools, nursing homes, private homes and hotels.
Symptoms of a norovirus infection can include vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, headache, body aches, and sometimes fever. People typically become ill 24 to 48 hours after exposure to the virus, and symptoms usually last one to two days.
Noroviruses are present in the stool and vomit of infected people. They are spread primarily through person-to-person contact, or contamination of food prepared by a person who is currently ill or has been recently ill and didn't wash their hands appropriately.
The key to preventing norovirus is simple, officials say. Just practice good personal hygiene, observe appropriate food-handling procedures and stay home if you are ill.
"All people need to do is remember to wash their hands adequately," said Dr. Kirk Smith, who heads the foodborne disease unit at MDH. "Wash your hands – thoroughly and carefully with soap and water – after using the toilet, before consuming food, and before preparing food for yourself or others. If everybody did that, we could prevent a majority of the illness caused by these viruses."
Part of the difficulty in combating norovirus, Smith said, stems from people confusing it with other things. The general public often refers to this type of illness as the "stomach flu," which then gets shortened to the "flu". This term causes much confusion, because norovirus is a completely different virus than influenza and causes a different illness, Smith said. "Influenza is primarily a respiratory illness, characterized by symptoms like high fever, body aches, sneezing, a runny nose or a sore throat," he said. "The confusion caused by the "stomach flu" terminology prevents people from recognizing that illness such as that caused by norovirus often comes from food, and can be passed on to others through food," he added.
Moreover, while influenza can be prevented with a vaccine, there is no vaccine for norovirus, leaving good handwashing as the primary defense. Precautions that can help prevent the spread of noroviruses include:
- Washing your hands after using the toilet
- Washing your hands before handling food, beverages and ice
- Washing your hands before eating
- Excusing yourself from food preparation duties if you have diarrhea and/or vomiting
- Discarding foods that were handled or prepared by someone with diarrhea and/or vomiting
- Promptly cleaning and disinfecting any surfaces that become soiled with vomit or stool
- Staying home if you are ill
People should also remember that they can continue to spread the virus for up to several days after they get over a norovirus infection, Smith emphasized.
"People who have been ill should refrain from preparing food – commercially or for their own families – for an additional 72 hours after they recover," he said.
The public can report suspected outbreaks of norovirus illness – or other food-related illnesses – to the MDH Foodborne Illness Hotline at 1-877-FOOD ILL (1-877-366-3455). More information about norovirus is available from the MDH Web site at http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/idepc/diseases/norovirus/index.html or by calling MDH at 651-201-5414 or 1-877-676-5414 during normal business hours, 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.
Dr. Kirk Smith
Supervisor, Foodborne Disease Unit